Young women's sexual agency in the transition to adulthood
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Young women’s sexual attitudes, experiences, and sense of self develop within multiple social contexts, including the schools in which they spend so much of their time, their romantic and sexual relationships, and a larger normative climate of expectations and beliefs about sexuality. Girls may struggle to develop a healthy view of their sexuality in the face of prevailing sexual beliefs that in many ways deny girls’ sexual desire and define female sexuality as passive and vulnerable. Despite these negative messages, however, many girls do develop positive attitudes about their sexuality, feeling entitled to sexual pleasure and safety. This study explores how young women develop this sense of sexual agency during adolescence and the transition to adulthood. Using longitudinal data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, I place adolescent sexual development in a social context, by considering the role of schools and early sexual relationships in young women’s developing sexual agency. Additionally, I consider the consequences of girls’ sexual attitudes and first sexual experiences not only for their sexual health but for their later sexual relationships as well. Finally, I consider how young women’s experience of sexual agency may be connected to another manifestation of gender inequality in relationships - housework. Findings suggest that girls’ attitudes toward sex and contraception are related to their sexual relationships in adulthood: girls who see sex as having negative consequences - either for their social relationships, their sense of self, or their future - are less likely to experience sexual agency in their adult relationships. Results also suggest that schools may play contradictory roles in girls’ sexual empowerment, as girls who do well in school were more confident about their ability to use contraception but were also more likely to associate sex with guilt and shame. Additionally, schools provide a peer context for the development of sexual attitudes. Finally, results suggest that explanations for gender inequality in housework are less relevant for sexual behavior, though women and men who are committed to equality in their relationships are likely to be more egalitarian in both housework and sex.